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Spagnola: Time To Play Their Hearts Out

Posted Dec 27, 2013


IRVING. Texas – The sun was shining brightly late morning on Friday, Dec. 27, out here at The Ranch.

         But that menacing cloud seemingly hanging over the Cowboys’ heads since the start of training camp this 2013 season, similar to that ubiquitous dirt cloud over the head of Peanuts character Pig-Pen, still was there during this final regular-season workout.

         No Tony Romo, done for sure following what seemingly was becoming inevitable back surgery all week long, performed sooner on Friday morning rather than later, like after the game if he could possibly play.

         No Sean Lee, a sprained neck ligament doing him in, knowing he cannot take any chances until fully healed.

         The two most important players for their respective units definitely out for what becomes the most important game of the season, Cowboys-Eagles, 7:30 p.m. Sunday at AT&T Stadium, the winner claiming the NFC East and the automatic playoff berth that comes along with it. The loser left to contemplate one too many losses over the course of the 16-game season – the Cowboys, in particular, having lost three of four one-point decisions, not to mention the three-pointer to Denver after scoring a 33-year-high 48 points way back in October, the most points ever scored in a loss.

         Not only that, no DeMarcus Ware, having suffered a slight hyperextension on Thursday to the same elbow he hyper-extended last year, though he vows to play just the same after having an MRI.

         And, my goodness, even defensive line coach Rod Marinelli was hobbling around practice with the use of a crutch.

         You’d have thought the Cowboys were preparing to cross the Delaware on Sunday instead of bumping into the Eagles (9-6), backs to the wall and staring down the common sense barrel of fate from the wrong end.

         So there they were on Friday, the 8-7 Cowboys, quietly going through their pre-practice passing drills, the only voice heard over there on the field with the offense being that of head coach Jason Garrett during the skeleton passing drills, imploring them to keep the ball off the ground.

         And in front of him, throwing the passes for the drill just three days before the next biggest game in a season seemingly loaded with big games were …

         Kyle Orton, who has not started a game in the NFL since 2011 and has thrown only 15 passes this year, all during mop-up time, and …

         Jon Kitna, who has not played a game of NFL football since that 2011 season himself, last throwing to his high school scout team back in Tacoma, Wash., this football season.

         What a sight to see.

         Now, darn it, you go win me a football game.

         Talk about dabbling in next-guy-up extreme.

         Of course, the easy, most logical thing for the Cowboys to do going up against the Philadelphia Eagles, who have won six of their past seven games, is to feel sorry for themselves, just throw in the towel like most everyone else. Yet such logic has no room in a competitor’s mind.

         There did not seem to be any towels strewn on the practice field Friday, nor wet ones dampening enthusiasm in the locker room afterward. The only inordinate sight was those blue T-shirts hanging in everyone’s locker after practice, inscribed with white lettering “Deep In The” and then, under the symbolic state of Texas white outline which included a Cowboys Star right in the middle, “Of Texas.”

         The subliminal message being “Heart.”

         Brother, the Cowboys will need all they have of this organ of fortitude.

         “This is why we do it, starting a long time ago, to be in this opportunity,” says Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, never one to let down his guard, and especially not now with everything on the line.

         The Eagles, well, see they’re doing some talking, right, running back LeSean McCoy runnin’ his NFL leading-rusher mouth, saying to the Philly fans on WIP, “Sunday night just relax. Turn on the channel, watch your Birds manhandle the Dallas Cowgirls. Let’s go. Merry Christmas,” another indication the Eagles are feeling full of themselves after putting that 54-11 beating on the Chicago Bears this past Sunday. Sort of like the Giants before them when facing a Cowboys team that had beaten them, too, the first time around.

         The Cowboys, well, there is nothing wrong coming in with a little quiet humility, flying under the radar, with everyone else giving up on them now that Romo and Lee are definitely out of this game, combined with sporting the league’s 32nd-ranked defense and 31st-ranked pass defense.

         But to me, out at practice Friday there seemed to be this quiet focus, understanding something big was about to take place; understanding they were without their general; understanding each and every one of them had to be at their best, no matter if it’s rookie DeVonte Holloman about to start only his second game at middle linebacker or Dwayne Harris returning after missing the past three games or Orton starting his first game for the Cowboys in the two years he’s been here or Morris Claiborne finally getting back on the field after a month’s injury absence or Kyle Wilber starting just his fifth NFL game at strong-side linebacker.

         Hey, if Romo can play nearly a full half of football with a back in need of surgery five days later to win GMAC’s Never Say Never Moment of The Week Award, no excuses.

          “Everyone just needs to do their jobs as well as they can do it,” Garrett says.

         Now, of course, all of this is fine and dandy, but you have to be good enough to win, something the Cowboys were not the past two years they were in this same exact win-and-you’re-in predicament, losing in order to the Giants in 2011 to finish 8-8 and to the Redskins in 2012 to finish 8-8.

         Although, this time there is something extremely different: The Cowboys are playing an NFC East opponent in the final game of the season that they have already beaten once this year – heck, they’ve won all five of their NFC East games this season – at home, at The AT&T.

         With a friendly roof over their heads and what’s expected to be 90-some-thousand towel-waving, screaming fans surrounding them, likely popping some goose-flesh and maybe some Eagle eardrums – can you hear me now? – since those folks will have all day to get ready for the game, if you know what I mean.

A difference? Hmmm, got any other logical reason why the Eagles, winners of five straight, went under the dome in Minneapolis two weeks ago and got spanked, 48-30, by the now 4-10-1 Vikings who were playing with basically their third-string quarterback and third-string running back?

“We know how difficult it is to play on the road when the crowd is into it, and it’s loud,” Garrett pointed out, likely remembering the playoff loss at Minnesota following the 2009 season or being told of the playoff loss following the 1991 season to the Lions at the Silverdome just before he got here as a player.

Hey, it’s the NFL, right? The Nothing Furshur League, and this is a playoff game, no? This is it.

Now common sense suggests the Cowboys have no chance in this game, and that is OK for you or even me to believe. But for this team, these players who somehow have muddled through this season of heartbreak, injury and resurgence, showing uncommon resiliency all season long, to stand 8-7 with a shot at the division title, they must keep the faith, gotta believe as former Cowboys safety Charlie Waters once told Cowboys long-time radio voice Brad Sham during the broadcast – Charlie was out with a broken leg – when the Cowboys trailed the Redskins 34-21 in the final minutes of the final game of the season, the Cowboys needing to win – they did in the final seconds – to claim the East title over Washington.

There is this line from the movie Miracle On 34th Street. You know, the one about the guy who believed with all his might he was Santa Claus: Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.

Well, who is to say a national TV audience won’t be witness to The Miracle on Randol Mill?

Would be somethin’, wouldn’t it, this holiday season.

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